On Fear and Silence
When I was in high school, I went on a date with a boy. In fact, I went on dates with a few boys, but let’s call this particular boy Rob. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to date him, but he was older and more popular and I was flattered by his interest. We went to a dance party with a group of several friends where I wound up against a wall with his hands down my pants. On the way home, in someone’s parents’ van, one of my friends sitting on the bench seat next to us, he did it again while I pretended to be asleep.
It was my first sexual encounter with another person.
It wasn’t violent. I didn’t say no. The honest truth is that I might well have been into it if we’d been somewhere private. But I wasn’t into it there. What I remember of being pushed against a wall off a dimly lit dance floor with Rob’s hand in my pants is being deer-in-the-headlines frozen. “Oh god, what if someone notices?” What I remember about the ride home is mostly the same. I was pretending to be asleep because I didn’t know how to deal with what had already happened, and didn’t want anything further to happen. It did anyway. I kept up the sleep charade through it. If I did anything else, I panic-reasoned, someone might notice I was getting fingered in a van with six other people in it. I was far more horrified by the idea that someone else might realize what was happening than by what was actually happening.
I didn’t go out with Rob again. I avoided him as much as possible after that.
I don’t think of it as a sexual assault, or myself as a survivor. To do so would feel like hijacking language that refers to real trauma, the kind of trauma I did not experience as a result of these events.
I was uncomfortable with what happened (and where), yes. I felt some amount of shame about it, but it wasn’t overwhelming or crippling, and it faded, as far as I remember, fairly quickly once I felt that I’d safely avoided becoming salacious gossip at my very small high school.
I didn’t, and don’t, feel deeply traumatized by it.
And yet it was also not a consensual experience.
And yet I’m shaking, just a little, as I write about it.
And yet once, when I was traveling (and posting photos on social media), Rob sent me a Facebook message to tell me that he happened to be visiting a nearby city and every muscle in my body for an instant became an alarm klaxon screaming UNSAFE.
I hadn’t thought about that night with Rob, really thought about it, in years. I’ve told a couple of people about it, usually as a sort of joke. (I like to be unflappable. It’s a terribly useful defense mechanism.) I don’t think I’ve ever recounted it in even as much vague and slightly obscured detail as I’ve done here.
But when I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I felt her desire to be believed, and her fear that she wouldn’t be, as palpably as if it were my own.
It is my own.
I am afraid to tell this story. I’m afraid to put it out into the world and let others judge its seriousness and its veracity.
Here are some things I am afraid of:
That you’ll read this and think I’m overreacting to even write about it. (Am I?)
That you’ll think I have no right to put this event anywhere on the same spectrum as what has happened to other people. (Is it?)
That you’ll read this and think that I implicitly consented by not saying no. (Did I?)
That you’ll read this and dismiss it. “These are standard high school hijinks — who cares?” (I care.)
That you’ll read this and think I’m jumping on the bandwagon, that I want so badly to make myself a victim that I had to dredge up this ridiculous high school thing from which to spin victimhood. (I don’t.)
That you’ll think I’ve made something up from thin air, just so I can jump on the victim bandwagon. (I haven’t.)
That you’ll think I’ve just forgotten that I actually wanted to get fingerbanged in a van surrounded by my classmates. (I didn’t.)
That you’ll think maybe I was drunk. (I wasn’t.)
That you’ll strip the nuance from this and demand that I must see myself as a victim. (I am the arbiter of my own experience, and I don’t.)
That you’ll strip the nuance from this and shout that I have no right to see myself as a victim. (I don’t. But if I did, I would still have a right to define my own experience of these events.)
That Rob will read this and recognize himself and be angry that I’d say he engaged in anything with me that was remotely non-consensual. (I did not say no. But I did not want it.)
That Rob will read this and recognize himself and feel some kind of shame or guilt that leads him to try to apologize to me, and then I will feel obligated to absolve him of guilt or wrongdoing or do emotional labor on his behalf to help him deal with his feelings. (Whatever else I may feel, I am not and have never been angry at him. But I have no interest in bearing the burden of dealing with his feelings in addition to my own.)
I don’t know the pain and the anxiety and the trauma that Dr. Ford has lived with as a result of her assault. But I do know a tiny portion of the fear she felt in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. How extraordinarily brave an act, to stand up knowing she was proffering herself for judgment, knowing what the response would inevitably be from so many listeners: She’s lying. She’s mistaken. She has a political agenda. If it’s true, why didn’t she come forward sooner?
The real question is: Why does anyone come forward at all? Why would any person willingly subject themselves to publicly reliving their trauma and then being gaslit about it by friends, family, strangers on the internet, pundits, media outlets, United States Senators, the president...?
That she did do so, because she felt it was necessary for the good of the country, makes her a truer patriot than most of the people casting judgment on her would ever aspire to be.
Every woman in this country could tell you at least one story about a time when a man felt entitled to her attention, her affection and/or her body. I could tell you several more about myself. Sometimes that entitlement is expressed violently and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it leaves lasting scars on your psyche and sometimes it doesn’t. Every woman in this country knows that, no matter what happens to her, many of the people around her will choose not to believe her, or, if they do, will place the blame at her own feet.
I suspect that every man in this country has behaved, on at least one occasion, as though he were entitled to some woman’s attention, affection or body. I suspect that any man who denies the truth of this is a man who routinely behaves this way because he can’t see his own behavior or entitlement for what it is.
I didn’t stop Rob from putting his hands down my pants. I didn’t want him to do that, but I didn’t stop him. Because I didn’t know what to do. Because I’d never been in a situation remotely like that before. Because I was afraid that someone would find out. Because the last thing a kind of weird teenage girl needs is to suddenly become the slut who got fingered in public. Because it wouldn’t have mattered that I didn’t want it, didn’t ask for it, was profoundly uncomfortable about it, just wanted it to stop.
I was on a date with him. I didn’t say no. I didn’t struggle. He was an upperclassman and well-liked. I was a shy, dorky girl still trying to figure out how to fit in. It would never have mattered that I didn’t want it. I would have been destroyed just the same.
What happened with Rob was not profoundly traumatic for me. I don’t have PTSD or anxiety or deep emotional scars from it. But I am still afraid to speak it aloud. I am afraid to have someone hear my experience and dismiss it as irrelevant, as nothing, as faulty memory or “boys will be boys.”
Watching senator after Republican senator dismiss Dr. Ford’s testimony drives home how right I was and how little has changed in the roughly two decades since my night with Rob, let alone in the years since her encounter with Brett Kavanaugh.
Men still claim the right to make decisions about both our bodies and our narratives.
Why didn’t she come forward? Because every woman knows, implicitly, that our lived experiences and our pain doesn’t matter to the world. We know that the people who ought to hear us won’t listen, or they’ll rewrite our stories to make themselves comfortable. So why bother? Why waste our time trying to make you believe us or give credence to our experience?
The world doesn’t care that we didn’t want it. The world doesn’t care how we experienced it. The world doesn’t care what these things do to us.
Many of the women around you bear grievous scars, physical and emotional, from sexual assaults that have been perpetrated against them. Nearly all of the women around you carry with them events that exist in the vast gray area of I’m OK, but that was not OK.
Not every man is a Brock Turner or a Brett Kavanaugh. Many men are Aziz Ansaris and Robs.
But every woman knows that could have been themselves up there in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Ford could have been any one of us, asking to be listened to and believed, terrified of the knowledge that we won’t be.